Catawba completes climb to the top with SAC championship
By Mike London
SALISBURY — It’s been a season when breaks have fallen Catawba’s way, and Saturday’s 28-14 win against Lenoir-Rhyne was no exception.
A collision left both Catawba cornerback Case Woodard and Lenoir-Rhyne slotback James Phillips sprawled on the ground in considerable pain. Phillips, who had scored an early touchdown, fractured a bone in his leg and had to be carted from the field. Woodard hurt a knee and hobbled off, but his day wasn’t over. He was able to return and make the “pick-six” that put Catawba on the road to victory.
“I was out for one series, and Lenoir-Rhyne scored to take the lead (14-7),” Woodard said. “But Mike (Catawba QB Sheehan) had my back. He took us down the field for the TD that tied it up, and then I knew I had to get back in there and make a play for him. Lenoir-Rhyne could see I was gimpy with the knee. That’s why they went after me. That’s when I got the pick-six.”
Lenoir-Rhyne (5-5, 3-4) faced second-and-9 at its 30 when Woodard broke quickly on a rare L-R pass as if he had two healthy knees. He intercepted at the 33 and roared down the L-R sideline for a 21-14 lead. Catawba led the rest of the afternoon.
“(Safety) Jeremy Addison made the block I needed,” Woodard said. “After that, it was nothing but grass.”
Sheehan scored three rushing touchdowns for Catawba, which ended a six-game losing skid against Lenoir-Rhyne. The Indians will be in the NCAA DII playoffs next Saturday and expect to be at home for the first round.
Catawba’s seventh straight victory was extremely hard-fought. The Indians (9-2, 6-1) took the game and an outright South Atlantic Conference championship mostly because of five L-R turnovers. The Bears, who rolled for 374 rushing yards, were difficult to stop, but Catawba’s physical inside linebacker Trey Evans was a wrecking ball and pounced on three fumbles.
“I know Lenoir-Rhyne has lost four in our league, but they definitely didn’t play like a four-loss team today,” Sheehan said. “They were fired up. They wanted to ruin all our goals and aspirations, but our defense came up with big turnovers all day. We held together when it got tough.”
Evans’ first fumble recovery came in the opening minute at the Lenoir-Rhyne 30. That helped the Indians jump on top, 7-0.
But then Lenoir-Rhyne rolled 77 yards to score. After Catawba went three-and-out, the Bears stampeded 86 yards for another touchdown and led, 14-7, five minutes before halftime.
Catawba responded. Sheehan got a 93-yard drive started with a 19-yard completion to Carlos Tarrats. Then Gary Williams made a fine catch on a 36-yard pass play that put Catawba inside the L-R 10. From there, two running plays by Sheehan put the ball in the end zone for 14-all.
Just 48 seconds after Sheehan scored, Woodward was headed to the house with his gimpy interception.
Catawba took a 21-14 lead to the locker room, and the coaching staff made adjustments. Lenoir-Rhyne had 243 rushing yards at the break, so the Indians changed priorities defending the triple-option.
“Usually you have to stop the dive first, but they were hurting us for 10 and 15 yards at a time to the outside with the pitch,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker explained. “We decided we had to take the pitch away, and make them beat us with the dive. We knew that meant giving up 3 yards at a time to the fullback inside. That’s not ordinarily sound football, but it’s what we had to do. We were not going to lose this game outside.”
It worked. Catawba’s defense pitched a shutout in the second half. The offense helped by keeping the ball for clock-eating stretches, although points were tough to come by.
“We were moving it, but we weren’t finishing drives,” Sheehan said. “Frustrating.”
Catawba still led, 21-14, as Lenoir-Rhyne started a determined drive from its 16-yard line with 11 minutes left.
East Rowan graduate Calvin Edwards made a twisting, spinning run of 32 yards to the Catawba 33. Then the Bears pounded for another first down at the Catawba 20.
“They were trying to punch it right down our throats,” Evans said. “It was time for us to stand up and I told the guys we had to bow up. When we bow up, we’re a brick wall.”
On second-and-6 from the Catawba 16, Edwards lost the handle on a dive play, and the ever-present Evans made his third fumble recovery with 8:16 left in the game.
Then Catawba’s offense threw the knockout punch with an 85-yard drive. Sheehan scampered 43 yards — untouched — on a quarterback draw for the touchdown. L-R’s hard-hitting free safety Chris Shaffer was off the field for that play, another break for Catawba.
“They blitzed and (running back) Cory Littlejohn cut the linebacker,” Sheehan said. “Their starting free safety wasn’t in there and his replacement went outside to help the cornerback cover Carlos Tarrats. The middle of the field was wide open for me. It was like the Newberry game (another long run) all over again.”
It’s been an amazing season for Sheehan, who had some serious struggles early. Lately, he’s been passing efficiently and he’s been deadly running the ball. Sheehan and Littlejohn both topped 100 rushing yards against the Bears.
“Mike had some tough times with injuries and bad-weather games,” Walker said. “But he’s a special young man, and he’s come back to lead this team to an outright championship. No one wanted to share this championship with Carson-Newman or Mars Hill.”
In the final minute, Woodard picked off another pass, jumped around with it for a while and looked like he never wanted to let the ball go.
“That interception meant a lot to me,” Woodard said.
The victory meant even more to Walker, his staff and Catawba’s seniors.
“It was just a lot of guys doing their part and doing their jobs,” Catawba senior nose guard Jonathan Jean said. “All those summer workouts, all those winter workouts and all those practices were to get to this point. That worked paid off today.”
A lock for the playoffs for the first time since 2007, Catawba will await the release of the pairings on Sunday evening.
“We’ve been on an incline for a while,” Sheehan said. “And a home playoff game will be nice.”